Bedouin in Israel Calling for Recognition, Rather than Relocation

Knesset Shelved Plan That Would Remove Thousands from Homes

Getty Images

By Ben Sales

Published December 16, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(JTA) — In this unofficial Bedouin town of 14,000 not far from Beersheva in the Negev Desert, families live in clusters of shanties with intermittent electricity provided by generators or solar panels.

A communal structure has soft plastic walls and dirt floors, with a small pit at one end for an open fire that provides the room’s only heat. Roads in many places are demarcated only by piles of rocks.

For decades, Bedouin tribes like those living in Wadi al-Naam and similar settlements all over southern Israel have waged a battle with the Israeli government over land rights, with the government refusing to recognize the unofficial settlements or give them electricity or infrastructure and the Bedouins refusing to move.

Ismail Barfash, a local locksmith, says if he wanted to move to the nearby recognized Bedouin town of Segev Shalom, he would have long ago.

“I like the quiet here,” Barfash said. “No one comes here to ask what you’re doing. I prefer to die here and not move somewhere else.”

Last week, Israel was set to bring a major resolution to the dispute by enacting a law – years in the making and following months of Knesset debate – that would have legalized some Bedouin villages and given them infrastructure while forcing others to relocate to recognized towns, where they would be given small land plots and some cash grants.

But the plan was shelved late last week with no vote after opponents on the right and left expressed concerns. Now the government must go back to the drawing board.

Some opponents of the law and many Bedouin say the government wants to confiscate their land and profit from it, using it for industry or the military. The government says it wants to settle the claims so that it can use the lands to develop housing and infrastructure.

The law would have addressed the status of approximately 110,000 Bedouin who live in unrecognized villages in the northern Negev.

“It’s not about taking the Bedouin and making a transfer,” said Doron Almog, director of the office of Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin in the Prime Minister’s Office. “It’s relocation from poverty to modernity. This will happen together with the Bedouin.”

In Lakia, one of seven Bedouin towns set up by the government about four decades ago as an experiment in transitioning the historically nomadic group to a more modern, urban lifestyle, one vexing issue is what the newly resettled nomadic Bedouin would do in their new urban digs.

“Bedouins used to plant olive trees and work the land, but that isn’t appropriate for the city,” said Nabhan El-Sana, project director for the Lakia Local Council.

Life in the Bedouin towns is not easy. According to Israel’s socioeconomic rating system, no Bedouin town scores better than a two out of 10. Residents tend to be poor, unemployment is high, infrastructure is in short supply and municipal budgets are small. Those who work usually do so outside of town in nearby Jewish villages or cities.

“The situation is very difficult,” said Talal Alkrinawi, mayor of Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel. “The worst communities are the Bedouin towns. The reason is that the government didn’t invest resources to develop industry and economy in the Bedouin cities. They didn’t worry about quality of life.”

Alkrinawi says that 79 percent of Rahat residents live below the poverty line. In 2009, the unemployment rates for Rahat and Lakia were 12 percent and 19 percent, respectively, compared to 6 percent nationally. In Rahat, the average annual salary is less than $20,000, compared to more than $32,000 nationally.

A government-sponsored employment program in Rahat run out of a new community center for young people aims to put more of the city’s young adults to work. It offers employment counseling, professional certification programs and entrepreneurship coaching.

But Hasan Abu Zaid, the youth center’s director, says many challenges persist. One of the greatest is the relatively small proportion of Bedouin with college degrees. About 46 percent of Israelis aged 25 to 64 have college degrees, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but only 6 percent of Rahat residents do.

“The picture is not rosy,” Abu Zaid told JTA. “We believe that employment must be accompanied by business development in the town. The Bedouin population always worked. It’s not that they don’t want to work.”

Government officials say that programs like the youth center plus a final settlement to land disputes will help growth in Bedouin employment rates and quality of life. The government is developing an industrial park outside Rahat, as well as a new neighborhood in the city that will offer subsidized housing to local Bedouin.

“We need to plan things and execute them slowly,” said Ami Tesler, head of the Community Relations Department for the Bedouin in the Prime Minister’s Office. “If you understand you have a certain number of families in a certain area, you have to plan schools and roads. It’s a process.”

Many Bedouin living in the unrecognized villages do not see relocation as the answer, however. Attia Alasam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, says he prefers that the government instead recognize the unofficial villages, settling land disputes and providing the villages with infrastructure and basic services.

“They need to solve this with dialogue,” he told JTA. “The state says I want to do good to you. When it destroys my village, what’s good about that?”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.